When I was a kid my favorite place to go was to my grandma’s house in Castle Dale, UT. Grandma would pack a picnic in an antique basket her family used when she was a girl and we would head out for the San Rafael Swell where she would fascinate us with tales about riding her Indian pony around the desert when she was young. A lady from Hawaii once told Grandma she couldn’t stand the thought of “living in such a barren place.” Grandma retorted that it was much better than Hawaii because she didn’t “have any of those darn trees blocking the scenery.”
The San Rafael brought out the quirky pioneer spirit of my family. We felt particularly free to be ourselves surrounded by sandstone cliffs, cactus, and sagebrush. One trip my dad did the unthinkable, he forgot his hat. My very bald father is of Scandinavian descent and once upon a time (before I was born) he had a full head of red hair. He still had the fair complexion associated with his lost hair, and never went anywhere without a hat. Grandma had a solution. She told my dad with a glint in her eye, “I have an extra bonnet." Grandma had quite a reputation in Emery County for making pioneer bonnets. I was very proud to know that Grandma was a girl people still wore them.
I loved all things pioneer. Laura from “Little House on the Prairie” was my hero. And Grandma, well, she was practically Laura. She had traveled in a covered wagon, worn pioneer bonnets, read by kerosene lantern and done everything else a proper pioneer girl would do. Her bonnets were awesome. The idea of my dad wearing one was not. Dad smiled mischieviously and placed the pink bonnet with a ruffle on his head and tied a bow under his chin. None of us kids wanted to admit we knew him. We tried to maintain a good distance from him. It was probably the most peaceful day Dad ever spent with us in the desert. (In hindsight I am kind of surprised that from then on he didn’t start wearing one perpetually). Later that evening Grandma surprised us all by spreading her sleeping bag out on the picnic table instead of in the tent. I thought it was hilarious imagining her spread out there all night like some kind of feast! She let me know that if she slept on the ground there would be no getting her up, and since it wasn’t in her plan to remain forever on the ground in the desert the picnic table would do nicely.
When I began dating Peter he was a frequent guest on these family outings. One winter trip my family was given two cases of bananas on the way out of town. It was cold that night and all the bananas froze. Unable to contemplate the waste of such a resource my mom forced each of us to eat all of the bananas before we were allowed to eat any other food on the trip. Peter, who was accustomed to eating no more bananas than absolutely necessary somehow managed choke down his share. It was a testament to his love of both me and the San Rafael that he never turned down a trip with us, even after being force fed bananas.
The San Rafael Swell is rich with reminders of those who lived there long ago. My family loved to visit an Allosaurus footprint. It was a magical to think that we could still see precisely where this creature had stepped. There were Native American pictographs and petroglyphs which filled me a desire to connect to a people who had lived long ago. As I looked at the art I would wonder what the people were like who made these pictures. What made them laugh, cry, what did their pictures mean to them?
From an early age I realized that not everyone regarded this land the way my family did. Some pictographs had been covered by graffiti and there were places where the hills and vegetation including the delicate, slow forming, erosion resistant soil crust had been torn up by newly popular ATV’s. It wasn’t the work of someone using a trail to get to a distant location, it was the repeated up and down of people looking for a thrill. From my earliest memory by brothers and I were incensed by this. We could understand the excitement of the ride, but thought that we had seen plenty of ugly hills where such recreation could be done without destroying something so breathtaking and fragile, a place that seemed sacred.
In the 1990’s more attention was paid to preserving the land. Even though it meant we could no longer drive up the wash to our favorite campsite, we were pleased that the graffiti was removed from the pictographs and relieved that the hills were protected from four wheelers.
In the years that have followed Peter and I have taken our own children to the San Rafael and watched their faces light up at their first sighting of the dinosaur print, or the excitement of finding a piece of petrified wood. I have heard my own children wonder aloud about the people who left their art on the walls so long ago. In those moments I feel a connection to my beloved grandma, who passed away many years ago. In this place I feel a connection to the generations of my family, and beyond that to the desert dwellers who left their art. I feel my connection to the creatures who roamed the San Rafael millions of years ago when it was a jungle. In this place I feel my connection to the earth and an overpowering sense of sacredness.
This is the basis of my environmentalism. I never want to have to say of my beautiful San Rafael, “She is gone, and we shall not see her like again.” I have no expectation that we humans will not leave a mark on her, we are after all, a part of the world, but I do hope we will not, in arrogance, trade her beauty for a short sighted season of convenience or a momentary joyride in the history of humanity. All of this is what Peter and I heard in Utah Slim's “Sister San Rafael.” Thanks Slim for giving us such a beautiful way to express our love for that place.